Lights in the Darkness
my emotions feel loud and big. its hard for me to keep hold of them. they weigh me down. make me heavy and tired and overwhelmed. sometimes I feel like everyone else is carrying a bucket of water but I’m trying to carry an ocean. its very hard. sometimes I would rather not carry my ocean, even if it meant I couldn’t be alive.
— Jeremey Samson, Carry the Ocean
I got the news about Robin Williams while I was at the barn with my daughter. At first I tried to push it away, but it was like this huge stone ball in the middle of my head that kept rolling back in. Then Twitter began its snowball of grief, and I have not been able to stop. I’m unable to edit this properly as I usually do, so please forgive any thoughts that ramble to nowhere or things that aren’t quite fleshed out. I confess, this is largely therapy for me tonight. Forgive me my indulgence.
For me Robin William’s suicide is a multi-fold pain. To start, he has been, for my whole life, the magic, maniac man whose very presence on a screen could change my day. He made bad movies good. He made good movies excellent. He was Mork, a show I watched religiously as a child. He has forever been so huge in my head. The idea that he could be taken down by depression is devastating not only for the literal loss of him as a man and an entertainer, but also because it drags in its wake the terrible thought: if a man that great, that wonderful, that beloved can be a victim to depression, what hope does anyone have?
And now comes the part that keeps making me cry: I love so many, many people with depression and anxiety.
This is hitting me so much harder than it is my husband, who is open about his struggles with depression and anxiety (mostly anxiety), but that makes a great deal of sense, to be honest. For him this is sad, but it isn’t news. Yes, he knows acutely how nasty the whispers of mental illness are. How they steal hope. How they distort the world and turn a blue sky into an ominous storm. While he works hard to avoid letting it tell him things are so bad he should remove himself from the world, he can see the road to that place far, far too easily. It lives on his horizon in a way that alarms me when I’m made aware of it, but which also far too easily fades from my view.
This is not to say he is constantly considering suicide. This is not to say he isn’t a strong, intense, wonderful, deeply caring human being. He is. He’s amazing. The problem is he lives with a shade, an illness which is not a cancer of the cell but of the spirit. While I look at him with love and feel deep affection, even express affection, left unchecked, it can tell him I am lying. It can tell him many ugly, terrible things. It can turn a banquet into a graveyard. It can turn wonder into despair. And it can do all this without me ever knowing it’s happening.
I know and love so many people who fight this fight. There are more people I love who fight, but I don’t know they do.
Let me assure you, the people who struggle with depression and anxiety are ten thousand times stronger than those of us who don’t. I’ve had a few bouts of situational depression, and it’s soul-sucking–but I could at least point to chronic pain and undiagnosed illness as my culprit. Clinical depression and anxiety do not have to have a cause. Depression and anxiety can strike anyone for any reason, or for no reason. And it doesn’t present with a nice rash so you can say, “Oh hey. There goes my anxiety again.” It sneaks into your thoughts. It looks and feels like you. It walks with you, talks to you. It can be entirely invisible, even when you know someone is suffering from it.
This makes me crazy. This makes me sick, it makes me furious, it makes me rage helplessly inside myself some days. It makes me say the wrong thing to the people I love who have depression and anxiety. I am a woman who prizes my strength and control, who loves with passion and intensity, and this fucking disease makes me watch it hurt the people I love and keeps me from reaching them. Keeps me from knowing they need help. Twists my words of love, contorts my support. Even when I dance the support team dance right, it can still make all my efforts ash.
There is something about this horrible, godawful sonofafuckingbitch disease taking Robing Motherfucking Williams that makes me feel so much despair I don’t know how to even express the words. I keep cycling through this like a madwoman, so I started to blog in hopes of bleeding off some of the pain–but I think this is one we have to sit with. Depression and anxiety eat so many lives. It doesn’t take them all by suicide. It takes most by inches and hours. It cuts them off from love and hope.
It makes me so crazy I feel like I will explode.
It makes me want to cry until I puke.
It makes me want to hug my husband until he tells me to get off.
It makes me turn inside out for my child, who is winning her own war with anxiety right now…but I fear not arming her enough, not loving her enough, that I could do everything right and it could still speak louder than me.
Inevitably when I get like this, I feel like a fool because I’m not the one carrying that pain around, I’m only watching. I think, though, as I watch the whole Internet lose its shit over this, we need to all start carrying this pain too. We can’t take depression or anxiety from those we love. But we can work hard to make sure we’re loving not only them, but speaking publicly about the reality and truth of these illnesses, including that a whole, whole lot of amazing, wonderful people carry that ocean.
I find myself returning often to mental illness in my stories, sometimes overtly and sometimes indirectly. I don’t know that I always do a good job, but I always try to present anxiety and depression as real, normal aspects of life, with people who get happily ever afters. I think that keeps happening because I cannot control real life but I can control my fiction. I want everyone to feel they have hope. I want everyone to have models of hope. I want everyone to feel they can be okay, whoever they are, whatever they carry.
The quote at the beginning of this post is from a novel coming out in April 2015, about a hero with high-functioning autism and another, the character quoted, who suffers from depression and anxiety. I have the novel on my desk as a pre-edit, a chance to go over it with one last hard polish before my editor and I begin working on it together. When I gave it to people to beta, I gave it to several people I knew had depression and/or anxiety, and then others who didn’t. Or rather, who I thought didn’t. It turned out every single one of my beta readers identified as depressed or anxious or both.
So many of my readers have depression and/or anxiety, which I know because they tell me. The number of times a reader has reduced me to a mess at a signing because they identified with a character who had depression, anxiety, and/or disability is more than I can recount here. It always humbles me, shakes something in my core, because it’s both wonderful and terrible. Wonderful that my words could mean that much to someone, that they could be so personal–but it’s always followed up by my terror that I might have gotten it wrong. That I can never go deep enough, write enough, be careful enough.
I think, though, that is what it is to love someone with depression or anxiety. You must sit with the truth that you cannot take their cup. You cannot be louder than the illness, not always. You cannot always see its blows coming. It can, and too often does, take good people from us. For no reason at all. It is terrible to realize how powerless we are. It is this helplessness and ache which make us screw up, make us try to dismiss people’s depression and anxiety, because we want so much for it not to be true. We don’t want that pain of helplessness, and we try to push it away.
We have to stop pushing that pain away.
I cannot carry anyone else’s ocean for them. But I will probably always try. To be sure, I will carry even more people even more closely now as I do that edit. I will carry every reader who has written or approached me. I will carry my husband and my daughter. I will carry my friends and my family. I will carry the total strangers who connected with me on twitter tonight. I will carry Robin Williams. I will carry everyone I can, knowing I can’t ever be powerful enough to make someone okay. But I can be a light that helps them find their way out. I can be part of a sky full of light. It is worth the pain of trying and failing, because we never know when we are light. Sometimes the simplest thing can be what allows someone else to hold on.
We all can be lights in the darkness. We are all light, even in our greatest darkness. Be light for those you love. Be light for anyone you can. Because yes, depression can fell the most magic, wonderful people. But I will never stop believing that even the tiniest shard of hope can save us all.